Boredom, stress, frustration or habit – snacking can be triggered by a variety of factors, but it often has a detrimental impact on body mass index (BMI) and even certain metabolic diseases.
But contrary to popular belief, these cravings are not necessarily bad for your health, a new study suggests. It all depends on what snacks you choose and the time of day you consume them.
People are snacking more and more, and at all hours of the day, according to Mondelez International’s Fourth Annual State of Snacking conducted with the Harris Poll and published in January.
According to that report, 64% of consumers across 12 countries preferred to eat small meals throughout the day rather than fewer larger meals. This has led to a rise in morning snacking (up 42%) and afternoon snacking (22%).
Is that good or bad? A team of researchers from King’s College London has some insight on the matter. As it turns out, snacking can be both bad or good for your health, depending on how it’s done.
This is the finding of research involving 854 people from the Zoe Predict programme, 95% of whom said they regularly snack.
Published in the European Journal of Nutrition, the findings show that almost half of participants (47%) consume two snacks a day, while 29% eat more than two. But the surprise is that snacking isn’t necessarily bad for your health – in fact, it may actually improve some aspects of it.
“The analysis showed that snacking is not unhealthy, as long as the snacks were healthy,” the study reads. “People who ate high-quality snacks like nuts and fresh fruits were more likely to have a healthy weight compared with those who don’t snack at all or who snack on unhealthy foods.
“Analysis also showed that good-quality snacks can result in better metabolic health and decreased hunger.”
Minimise fat and sugar
But the nature of the snack can change the situation, turning benefit into harm; in fact, “wrongful” snacking could even cancel out the benefits of healthy meals. This is not an insignificant finding considering that cookies, cakes, pies, cereals and cheese are among the most commonly consumed snacks.
The study also shows that over a quarter of participants (26%) claimed to eat healthy meals – consumed at traditional mealtimes – as well as snacks considered much less healthy, namely highly processed foods or sweetened products.
And therein lies the rub, since snacks of this type are associated with higher BMI and visceral fat mass, as well as elevated post-meal triglycerides levels. These are all associated with an increased risk of metabolic diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
Furthermore, recent findings reaffirm that ultra-processed foods can have a detrimental effect on one’s physical and mental wellbeing.
This observation becomes problematic when you consider that half of the study participants ate healthy meals while snacking on fatty or sugary products, or vice-versa, negating the positive efforts made at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Considering 95% of us snack, and that nearly a quarter of our calories come from snacks, swapping unhealthy snacks such as cookies, crisps and cakes to healthy options like fruit and nuts is a really simple way to improve your health,” Dr Sarah Berry of King’s College London, who took part in the research, advised.
Timing also key
Another factor that may prove decisive is the time that snacking takes place. While the Mondelez survey showed people snack throughout the day, the new research demonstrates that snacks consumed after 9pm are “associated with poorer blood markers compared with other snacking times”.
Again, this could be due to the nature of the snacks eaten in the evening – often in front of the TV – and richer in fats and sugars.
“This study contributes to existing literature that food quality is the driving factor in positive health outcomes from food,” concluded co-author Kate Bermingham.
As such, “making sure we eat a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, protein and legumes is the best way to improve your health”.